Perhaps going the anti-feminist route by reminding men that you should never ever—ever—cross a woman’s fury—let alone purposefully suppress the memories of a powerful telepath who goes bonkers after flirting with a creepy space cloud—Dark Phoenix is a movie that defies expectations and delivers a highly entertaining X-Men story, even if it’s far from perfect.
Based on the snickering I heard in the darkness at the press-only movie screening and a spattering of embargoed comments I’ve seen online since, Dark Phoenix didn’t resonate with everyone, but when you’re expecting trash and instead get a solid action film with great visual effects and a decent story, I’m willing to be the hero audiences deserve to stand above the rest and cry, “No, critics, no! Dark Phoenix is worth seeing!”
Based on one of the most well-known comic book sagas of all time, but like the widely panned X-Men: The Last Stand significantly altered from the source material, Dark Phoenix focuses on Jean Grey (played by Sansa Stark herself, Sophie Turner) as she develops new, uncontrollable powers that threaten everyone around her.
In true comic book adaptation fashion, Jessica Chastain plays the forgettable villain.
Directed by Simon Kinberg—his feature debut—Dark Phoenix may not have as well-staged action as some of the other X-Men features have boasted (most notably X2) but he still gives us several high-octane scenes, most notably a long and involved train sequence that has mutants coming from all angles. The visual effects are impressive—notably better than most other recent blockbusters, including most MCU films—and enhance the action.
The story and screenplay are okay, but certainly the film’s weaknesses. Working against the movie from the onset, and beyond Kinberg’s scope, is that the previous X-Men movies did a piss-poor job of developing the key characters here, let alone establishing them as a cohesive team. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey only first appeared in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, and it’s doubtful too many fans feel the urge to revisit that stinker. Dark Phoenix should be an emotional movie about Grey fighting for her humanity, but as good as Turner is, it’s hard to feel too much for her, or her boyfriend (husband?) Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), given that Kinberg only has 20 minutes to set everything up before taking the big plunge.
Further, some of the character decisions feel more forced than organic—Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) make several questionable decisions, only to pivot again as the story necessitates. Fans of the source material will be disappointed by the neutering of the story, and even if you aren’t well versed in the saga, the villainous aliens are never explained adequately.
Nonetheless, Kinsburg does a good job of showing how the X-Men work together—the opening sequence is the most team-oriented display of their powers of the entire franchise—and demonstrating Jean Grey’s might.
Dark Phoenix is far from perfect—the saga probably deserves a long-form adaptation on Disney+ at some point—but thanks to solid action and a fast pace, it serves as suitable entertainment and a positive rebound from Apocalypse.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.